Just how posh is your Christmas?

Do you go for a Norway spruce or Homebase artificial? Elizabethan-style cinammon stick bundles, or drifts of tinsel? Is the focus of your day the Queen’s Speech, or the first family row? In short, how posh is your Christmas?

It makes no difference whether you’re frantically flinging money at the problem on www.needapresent.com or popping up to town to collect a few crucial comestibles from Fortnum & Mason. As we all hurtle inexorably towards December 25 in a giddy rush of consumerism, there is one shared aim: The Perfect Christmas.

Unfortunately, most people’s interpretations of a perfect day are wildly different from each other. Cast your mind back to the very first time you spent the festive season at someone else’s house and relive, if you can, the horror. To paraphrase L P Hartley, it’s not just the past that’s a foreign country, but the shuddering vulgarity of Other People’s Christmas customs.

Sauce for the goose is most definitely not sauce for the organic bronze turkey and one man’s tradition (no gift opening until after lunch) is another woman’s torture (up at dawn, chocolate money for breakfast).

We’re all keenly aware that Christmas is, of course, a time of peace to all men. But it’s also the time we open our doors to competitive friends, judgmental neighbours and the sort of distant family whom we secretly dislike but are desperate to impress.

So how to celebrate the festive season with class? How can you ensure that your guests will marvel at your impeccable taste rather than snicker into their mulled chianti? It’s not too late to take action, so read our guide to the etiquette of an upper crust Christmas.

The Tree > Natural or artificial?
Natural is always vastly superior. In recent years the Norway spruce has been superceded by the bushier Nordmann Fir, which has non-drop needles, so clearly the spruce is preferable as it smacks of traditional values and an army of domestic staff to do the vacuuming. It should, of course, come from one’s own estate.

Having said that, problems in Denmark mean that imported Nordmann Firs are likely to be in short supply, therefore urban alpha couples MUST obtain one at whatever cost.

A bare tree may be hung with orange and clove pomanders, festooned with ribbons and bedecked with real candles only if your home is pre-Restoration. Tinsel is unpardonable. Fashionistas who slavishly bought must-have black artificial trees last year should not, on any account, re-use them as they may be shot on sight by the style police.

The Decorations > Colour co-ordinated or random?
Notorious snob and Tory MP Alan Clark once dismissively described Michael Heseltine as the sort of non-U type who had to buy his own furniture.

So it is with decorations, which ideally should be inherited, characterfully mismatched and embellished with the sort of highly poisonous lead paint that is now outlawed in the EU. You may, however, pick up one or two unusual baubles abroad every year as this enables you to display how well-travelled you are.

Themed trees are woefully nouveau, unless the hosts are gay, although it is permissable for heterosexuals to garland the mantelpiece with holly and ivy, so long as it has been collected in the course of a hearty country walk, rather that bought.

A wreath (handcrafted by the WI) on the front door is marvellously posh, as it signals you live in the sort of area where no-one’s likely to pilfer it. Other outdoor decorations are common. Mistletoe is tacky unless it’s in generous abundance. All fairylights must be white.

The Cards > Second or first class?
Should have been sent out in early December by second-class post as this implies both superior organisation and upper-class indigence.

Personalised cards featuring a smiling family shot do have a certain patrician charm but be careful who you send them to – just remember the sort of witheringly personal comments that are made about the Blairs’ annual Christmas portrait.

Obscure and eccentrically British animal charity cards – the Rare Breeds Association, the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Trust, the Nightjar Preservation Society – are ideal but, failing that, people charities will do. For wider acquaintances, Tesco cards are acceptable, cards from Next are not.

The Church Service > Christmas Eve or Christmas morning?
High midnight mass is the natural choice of the uberposh but, failing that, it’s church on December 25th, especially if you are a royal or have been given a new Maxmara coat.

Chrismas Eve worship does have its social advantages however, as it provides an opportunity to invite other members of the congregation back for a drink. This implies well-bred insouciance about the hellish prospect of rising at 4am to haul the turkey into the Aga, plus how else will they find out that you make your own mince pies?

The Presents > Before or after lunch?
When to open presents is a highly contentious issue. Received wisdom has it that it’s posher to refrain until after lunch, which it undoubtedly is.

Having said that, true aristos have no concept of delayed gratification – think the Marquess of Bath or Prince Charles in a petulant tizz – so strictly speaking, ripping them open in a frenzy at dawn is, though somewhat nursery in style, also correct form.

Stockings should be threadbare ancient family heirlooms with a diverting story as to their provenance (“I bought it in Paperchase” doesn’t quite make the grade). A satsuma in the toe remains mandatory.

The Crackers > Cheap tat or expensive fripperies?
Upmarket crackers are, in fact, downmarket and the crass preserve of City boys with more money than breeding.

Crackers containing “premium novelties” such as mother-of-pearl runcible spoons or silver-plated whistling keyrings smack of corporate functions and fly in the spirit of good old-fashioned fiddly metal puzzles and tiny plastic commando figures with crumpled parachutes, the like of which have made Britain great.

The Christmas Meal > Lunch or dinner?
The ten-bird roast that includes a hummingbird inside a cattle egret inside a dodo is, mercifully, so last year.

Goose is still the gold standard but, failing that, an organic turkey, preferably named and personally chosen from a field in Wales sometime in September. Brandy butter is the accompaniment of choice for the plum pudding, even though nobody likes it.

Lunch should be eaten at lunchtime – certainly no later than 1.30pm. However, it may also be comically late, depending on how bohemian you wish to appear and providing there’s an amusingly disastrous anecdote attached, eg. the gundogs ate the trimmings.

The Guests > Active participants or bemused bystanders?
In posh homes, first-time guests, particularly in-laws, are briefed by a tame family member about the day ahead.

Outsiders would do well to remember that they are the festive equivalent of embedded journalists in hostile terrain and must at all times strive to blend in, i.e. meekly wear the silly party hats and take part in interminable games of charades (a very PLU activity).

They must never question the established traditions of the house and on no account should they commit the classic solecism of enquiring about the acronym FHB.

It stands for Family Hold Back and means that the panic-stricken hostess has realised there’s not enough lunch to go round, which is why taciturn teenage sons may suddenly be observed sulkily hurling roast potatoes back into the serving dish.

The Queen’s Speech > To watch or not to watch?
After years in the broadcasting wilderness, The Queen’s Speech has been rehabilitated and is, once again, a treasured institution and the highlight of the day.

She may be embracing Estuary English vowels, but her aitches remain reassuringly robust. The BBC film must be enjoyed en famille in the sitting room, symbolising Dickensian togetherness, even if you do all hate each other, as it affords the opportunity for elderly members to slip into a refreshing hyperglycaemic coma after lunch.

Watching the repeat Christmas edition of Only Fools and Horses, even by mistake, is unforgiveable.

The Drinks > Pre-prandial sherry or post-prandial Bailey’s?
Sherry is no longer ironic and may be safely drunk outside the Home Counties without fear of derision but only if served in authentic catavinos sherry glasses rather than Abigail’s Party Waterford crystal.

Breakfast buck’s fizz remains popular but it must be made with real champagne and proper orange juice with the irritating floating debris. Once it has been established that you have got Veuve Clicquot in the house, feel free to serve up Cava for the rest of the day, as blue-blooded types are notoriously parsimonious.

Bailey’s Irish Cream is chavvy, cointreau is not. Getting quietly slaughtered by mid-afternoon is classless.

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Have a hangover-free Christmas

On the 12th day my true love suffered indigestion. Don’t let that happen to you. Find out how to overcome those festive ailments, from drinking too much to sore feet.

You feel terrible! Why did you have that last cocktail? If you feel trapped on the festive treadmill, all those parties, all that shopping and all those rich meals to wade through, Christmas can seem more of a trial than a treat. Late nights, rich food, too many sneaky cigarettes, bad breath can strike all of us. In fact recent research estimates that four in 10 people worry about it.

Bad breath is one of the hidden complaints. You either know you have it and are devastated, or you don’t know you have it and devastate those around you. The good news is, it’s easy to correct. Keep a toothbrush and some whitening toothpaste in your desk drawer or handbag.

Two-thirds of those questioned admit to putting on a stone in weight as a result of stuffing themselves, as well as the turkey, over the Christmas holidays. It’s hardly surprising as a traditional plate of Christmas dinner can contain 1,300 calories, that’s without the pudding, the drinks and that indulgent breakfast.

Even making small changes can help. Have a light breakfast like fruit instead of a fry-up. Choose stuffing made from chestnuts or dried fruit instead of sausage meat and save 100 calories and 11g of fat per serving. Try to take a walk instead of slumping in front of the television on Christmas Day and the exercise will aid digestion and help burn off a few calories.

You’ve partied like Paris Hilton, gone on shopping sprees that would put Wayne Rooney’s girlfriend Coleen McLoughlin to shame and worked as though overtime is going out of fashion to hit deadlines before the festive break.

It’s little wonder Christmas Day is renowned for people snoring on the sofa. By the time December 25 is opened on the advent calendar, we’re all exhausted. Exhaustion can make you feel irritable, overwhelmed and depressed. In the run-up to Christmas there’s a tremendous amount to do. People cram everything in with work and home and that combined with the party season and late nights leave people struggling through the day.

Pace yourself in the build-up to Christmas. Try to tackle things one by one and make lists so that you set yourself manageable targets. Amongst the busy times with friends and family, allow some space for yourself and your partner. Sleep is a handy tool to combat exhaustion. It’s important not to have too many late nights or drink too much, which can affect sleeping patterns. Go to bed at a reasonable hour with a camomile tea. Herbal sleeping remedies are good because they don’t make you feel zonked out the next day.

Celebrating the festive season with one cheeky tipple can rapidly turn into excessive merriment and a few too many empty wine bottles for the recycling bin. Whatever your poison, a spinning room, thumping headache and a quick dash to the bathroom are often part and parcel of the morning after the night before.

It’s estimated 17 million working days are lost to hangovers each year and the festive season is sure to be high on alcohol-induced sicknotes. The best advice is not to drink, but if you do indulge, follow these tips for preventing a hangover:

  • Limit yourself to one drink per hour. The body can process alcohol at a rate of about 15ml per hour, the equivalent of about one small can of medium strength lager.
  • Eat a meal before you start drinking. Food helps to absorb alcohol, giving the body more time to process it and reducing the risk of a hangover.
  • Drink plenty of water to counter the dehydrating effects of alcohol.
  • Intersperse alcoholic drinks with water to avoid the ‘morning-after thirst’.
  • Avoid drinks that contain large amounts of congeners, as these tend to cause more severe hangovers. Generally, these are dark-coloured drinks such as red wine, brandy, and port.

Staggering around with laden shopping bags or dancing the night away in sky-high stilettoes can add up to some serious aches and pains. A little commonsense goes a long way. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes when you’re on a major shopping mission.

If you don’t want to give up your dancing shoes, try invisible gel cushions. These nifty gel pads slip inside your shoes and cushion the balls of your feet. Available from major pharmacies.

Eating on the run during shopping trips, indulging in too many rich meals or gobbling down suspect party snacks can also cause festive misery.

Around 37 per cent of people suffer from a stomach complaint, indigestion or bloating over Christmas, according to another survey. Get relief from bloating and trapped wind with gel capsules, from supermarkets and pharmacies.

A Guide To Volunteering > II

Posted On December 10, 2006

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Is Volunteer Work Tax-Deductable? > No, unfortunately, the actual volunteer hours are NOT tax-deductable (in the US).

However, many expenses associated with volunteering can be deducted, like mileage and other travel expenses, paper, copying fees, parking, convention-attendance fees, etc. But these deductions apply only if the volunteer organization isn’t reimbursing you for them, and most don’t. A good rule of thumb is to get approval from the organization before you incur costs.

What’s The Scoop On Virtual Volunteering? > Opportunities for volunteering over the Internet are steadily increasing, whether it be building databases at home that are then e-mailed to organizations, moderating forums or updating web pages.

Virtual volunteering offers the flexible scheduling and isolation that many people crave. However, the commitment is just as serious as in-person volunteering. According to the Virtual Volunteering Project, a few problems have sprung up because people click “yes” to volunteer before really considering their expectations and schedule for an assignment.

The considerations for volunteering electronically differ somewhat from in-person volunteering > 

  • Do you have regular, ongoing access to the Internet? Think twice about agreeing to a virtual assignment if your access is limited to a university campus and the semester is about to end, or if you are about to switch providers or computers.
  • Do you have strong written communication skills? Almost all the correspondence between volunteer and supervisor will be through e-mail, and you have to be sure that you can communicate your ideas and intentions clearly by typing alone. Also, do you answer e-mail quickly? Your communication with your supervisor will be severely hindered if he or she has to wait a couple of days before getting your responses.
  • Are you comfortable working on your own? If you accept a virtual assignment, you likely won’t have direct supervision. E-mailing a few questions back and forth is completely acceptable, but you need to be comfortable taking the bull by the horns and charging forward with an assignment.
  • Do you have strong time-management skills? It will be up to you to garner the motivation necessary to get your project done by deadline. The Virtual Volunteering Project suggests that you schedule an approximate or specific time to complete the project to which you’ve committed. Procrastinating a volunteer assignment will make the job much tougher than it should be.

Where Can I Find Volunteer Opportunities? > Innumerable resources exist to find a great volunteer position. Your local place of worship, school, library, halfway house, youth organization or United Way will likely give you some leads. Also, talk to your friends, co-workers and neighbors for more ideas.

Internet resources are equally vast. The Points of Light Foundation coordinates a network of more than 500 volunteer centers throughout the nation. Also, check out Volunteer Match, which lists opportunities by city. Sites like the Disaster News Network offer volunteer opportunities for specific causes throughout the nation.
http://www.pointsoflight.org
http://www.pointsoflight.org/centers/find_center.cfm
http://www.volunteermatch.org
http://www.disasternews.net

Additional Resources >
Corporation for National Service > http://www.cns.gov
Project America > http://www.project.org

A Guide To Volunteering > I

Posted On December 10, 2006

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Ah, the Christmas Season! A few days off work, some extra time with the family, and a serious date with the couch.

But perhaps you can put that lounging time to better use, by helping others. That’s what, afterall, the Christmas Spirit is all about!

People come up with a number of excuses to avoid volunteering during the holidays. But spending a few hours helping to sort toys or serve soup will be incredibly self-fulfilling and invaluable to those on the receiving end, and you can still work in that extra family bonding time by including everyone.

Why Do People Volunteer? > There’s a never-ending list of reasons why people decide to volunteer, according to  www.serviceleader.org. A few of the most common motivations include > 

  • A need to feel needed
  • Desire to learn new skills
  • Meeting new people
  • An opportunity to give back to society
  • A way to deal with personal problems
  • Sharing with those less fortunate

What Type Of Volunteer Work Suits Me? > Don’t jump into a volunteer commitment without thinking it all the way through. There are a number of considerations, including > 

  • What skills you have to offer, whether it be skills you use for your regular job or a hobby, or whether you want to train for something new.
  • What you want to learn or benefit from a volunteer experience. Many people are uncomfortable with the thought that volunteers “benefit” from volunteering, it is traditionally looked on as a completely self-sacrificing effort. But, though service should be a major motivation, you’ll be happier if you’re gaining skills or at least personal satisfaction from the experience.
  • How much time you’re able to commit. Don’t overextend yourself, or let your job or family suffer because of vast amounts of volunteer time. It doesn’t take a lot of time to volunteer successfully. It’s best to commit so something small and take on more if you decide you have the time and motivation.
  • Whether you want to work alone or in a group will have a huge impact on what type of volunteer opportunity you’ll seek. Meeting people is one reason many people become involved in volunteering, but perhaps you’re the type of person who works best independently. There are plenty of opportunities for each preference, including virtual volunteering.

How Can I Be Sure That I’ll Like Volunteering? > Be very thorough in your search for a volunteer opportunity. There are some things you can do to be assured that you’re comfortable with what you’re getting into > 

  • Research causes or issues that are important to you. Then try to find an organization that you feel helps this cause. If you volunteer your time doing something about which you’re passionate, you’ll develop a stronger commitment and sense of fulfillment.
  • Visit the organization in which you’re interested before agreeing to volunteer. Meet the people, learn the motivations and objectives of the organization and get a sense of whether or not you’d enjoy working in the atmosphere.
  • Ask your potential supervisor for a job description of volunteer work, and ask what role volunteers play in the grand scheme of the organization. Also, ask if training is necessary or available.
  • Expect an interview, or even a background check if it’s a job working with children. Don’t let this intimidate you, an interview is mutually beneficial. It poses a great opportunity for you to talk more in depth about why you want to volunteer with that particular organization, and it gives your potential supervisor a chance to get to know you and if you’re suited for a volunteer position with that particular organization.
  • Make a firm commitment. If you agree to volunteer, the organization trusts that you’ll complete any assignments agreed upon and to see any projects through to the end. Don’t let down the organization, or the people who need your help.

December 1st > World AIDS Day

In observing World AIDS Day Christmas Spirit brings to your attention the following > How not to pick up an unwanted gift at the Christmas party

Tis the season to be jolly and that means parties, drinking and generally having fun, but be warned, seasonal socialising could also bring you an unwanted Christmas present.

Health agencies report that requests for help with unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), rise in the new year following the festive celebrations. Unfortunately, for many the party season means throwing common sense out of the window, and ignoring things like safe sex and taking precautions. Drinking more makes people uninhibited, more reckless and less likely to avoid unprotected sex, leaving them vulnerable to unwanted pregnancies and STIs.

This view is backed by a recent survey which found one in five people would have sex with a colleague at a Christmas party, while 27 per cent have had sex with somebody whose name they didn’t know or couldn’t remember. Research by SELFCheck, a new range of home health screening tests, also found that two-thirds of the 2,000 people surveyed would not get tested for STIs even after having unprotected sex with a stranger. The results from this survey are shocking but not very surprising. There appears to be an ignorance is bliss’ attitude which is no doubt linked to the stigma attached to STIs. It’s very important for young people to understand that rates of STIs are increasing and that having unprotected sex could be risky. The Health Protection Agency also reports a three per cent rise in STIs between 2004 and 2005.

Chlamydia, a common treatable infection that can cause infertility in women but often has no symptoms, is the most prevalent sexually transmitted infection in the UK. It now affects one in 10 women aged between 16 and 24. Don’t let embarrassment stop you from asking a new partner to use contraception, and make sure you are organised with contraception before you go out partying or away on a Christmas holiday.

We’re also more vulnerable to common infections like thrush and cystitis during the party season due to an increased intake of sugary foods and booze. So don’t let a hectic social diary mean you ignore your gynaecological health – follow these simple precautions to avoid festive hazards.

SEXUALLY-TRANSMITTED INFECTIONS > THE FACTS

STIs > STI is an umbrella term for any infection acquired during penetrative sex. It includes conditions such as genital warts, gonorrhoea, hepatitis and HIV. Symptoms vary and may go unnoticed, but can include unusual bleeding or discharge, pain during urination, genital rashes, lumps or itches and pain during sex.

PREVENTION > Do not have unprotected sex, carry condoms and use them.

CURE > Most are easily treatable. If you’re worried you have a sexually-transmitted infection, you can find a clinic by calling NHS or look in the phone book under genito-urinary medicine, venereal or sexually transmitted disease. 

CYSTITIS > Two million UK women are affected annually and sufferers are most vulnerable to an attack in the party season because increased alcohol consumption and more sex can leave you prone to bladder inflammation. Other causes are not drinking enough water, being tired and run down, and using perfumed bath products.

Symptoms include feeling you want to urinate even when your bladder is empty and a stinging sensation when you do. Cloudy, smelly urine, pain in the lower back and blood in the urine are also signs.

PREVENTION > Wipe front to back after going to the toilet, drink plenty of water and cranberry juice, which is believed to prevent bacteria sticking to the urinary tract.

Avoid coffee and alcohol as they can turn urine acidic and always urinate after sex to flush out any bacteria.

CURE > Take painkillers and drink a lot of water to dilute the urine. Avoid sex and alcohol. Boots has Cystitis Relief tablets and sachets. If the attack lasts longer than two days, is severely painful, or if you have recurrent attacks, you should see your GP.

THRUSH > Wearing tight, hot clothing, or upping your intake of alcohol or sugary food can trigger an over-growth of yeast which thrives in a warm, moist environment. Thrush can develop when you have sex with someone who has the infection, but it is more likely to occur when you take certain antibiotics, are unwell or ill, use products that can cause irritation such as vaginal deodorants. Symptoms include itching and burning.

PREVENTION > Avoid bubble baths and feminine hygiene products, wear cotton underwear and stockings.

CURE > Use a cream such as Canesten Thrush cream, or Diflucan tablets, both from Boots.

How To Deal With Christmas Stress

Christmas is just under a month away. And Christmas stress is about to officially start, according to Greenwich University, London.

The first Saturday in December is when happy anticipation is overtaken by feelings of tension about what’s left to do. Shopping causes the most stress as we work against a budget and a deadline to find perfect presents. It raises our heart rates, shuts down our digestive systems and leaves us physically and mentally exhausted.

Christmas Stress management advice >

Do all your present shopping on one day. It focuses the mind. Shop via the internet to avoid crowds, queues and parking problems.

If you do go to the shops, don’t stop for coffee. Caffeine makes the body release cortisol, the stress hormone, which leaves you feeling tense. Instead take a bottle of water with you.

When you are in a queue, breath in for four counts, hold it for 16 counts, then breath out for eight counts. This will boost levels of serotonin in your brain.

The Stress Management Society has a free guide to managing stress at Christmas, available through its website > www.stress.org.uk

Share the Christmas Spirit > The gift of togetherness

Posted On November 10, 2006

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The Gift of Togetherness > Sharing the Holiday Season with the Elderly.

We are approaching the season when our thoughts naturally turn homeward, to warm cozy kitchens, the irresistible aroma of turkey roasting in the oven, and the anticipation of joyous family gatherings. Customarily, this is also the time of the year when emphasis is often placed upon wide-eyed youngsters and their merriment. What is often over-looked, however, is the effect the traditional holiday season has upon the elderly.

The discovery of a loved one’s noticeable decline is oftentimes a stark realization for out-of-town family members who arrive for a visit and are suddenly caught off-guard. What is a family to do when mom or dad’s condition becomes a concern? Amidst the flurry of activity, it is especially important to be attentive to the needs of older adults at this time of the year. Thoughtfully planning multi-generational family activities in which the elder can participate, serves as a gentle reminder as to the important role he/she still plays in the family, and can be the ultimate gift of the season.

Chances are you have already given some thought as to which family member is going to host Christmas morning brunch this year, or perhaps Hannukah dinner, as your family prepares to light the first candle on the menorah. Most adult children assume it is time they lifted the burden of entertaining from their parents, and dutifully begin to make holiday preparations. While some older adults enthusiastically welcome the opportunity to “retire” from their hosting duties, others have a great deal of difficulty relinquishing the leadership role within their family and becoming a guest. Women who have enjoyed the traditional role of matriarch for decades may be especially challenged as they struggle with a perceived loss of identity. Families can minimize these feelings by including older adults in the early stages of holiday planning. If a loved one doesn’t appear up to the task of independently hosting the family dinner, yet just cannot bear to give up the tradition of Thanksgiving at Grandma’s just yet, volunteer to arrive early in the morning and “assist” her in the preparations. Simply helping her to set the table with her heirloom wedding china, and joining in the preparation of her “tried-and-true” recipes, lends itself to a memory not soon to be forgotten. If it has been determined the hosting torch will be passed this year, be sure to incorporate a few traditions along with the new additions as you prepare to celebrate.

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